On Saturday, March 31, 2012, Omar Calabrese succumbed to a heart attack in his home in Monteriggioni, Siena. Born in Florence on June 2, 1949, Calabrese has been a key-figure in semiotics and a protagonist of communication studies in Italy.
He was President of the Italian Association for Semiotic Studies for two mandates from 1996 to 2000.
He began his academic career as a linguist, graduating at the University of Florence under the supervision of Giovanni Nencioni. Significantly, Calabrese’s thesis was on Carosello, one of the most famous programs of Italian TV, a choice that witnesses to an early interest in mass communication, which would subsequently find expression in a series of pioneering books (with Ugo Volli, Come si legge il telegiornale [“how to read TV journals”] (1979), with Patrizia Violi, Il giornale (1980) [“the newspaper”]), as well as in the project of a Rivista illustrata della Comunicazione [“illustrated journal of communication”], in research, together with Mario Wolf, for VQPT RAI (the research center of Italian public television), and afterwards in directly contributing to the foundation of University courses in Communication Sciences.
He particularly excelled in the field of semiotic studies and art theory, fruitfully cooperating with scholars such as Thomas Maldonado, Umberto Eco, Hubert Damish, Algirdas Julien Greimas, and Louis Marin. He taught first at the University of Bologna, then for twenty years in Siena, where he held the chair of Semiotics of the Arts and directed the Doctoral School in Studies on Visual Representation.
His indisputable qualities as theoretician and intellectual earned him several invitations by many international research centers, such as the EHESS, the Warburg Institute, and the Universities of Yale and Harvard.
In addition to these scientific and intellectual qualities, Calabrese succeeded in building around himself a fertile ground for the development and circulation of ideas, thus becoming an indispensable reference for many generations of researchers, whom he supervised with scientific rigor and friendliness. Lucia Corrain, Tarcisio Lancioni, Elisabetta Gigante, Massimo Leone, Angela Mengoni, Stefano Jacoviello, and Francesca Polacci were among his pupils, as well as the younger scholars Maria Cristina Addis, Massimiliano Coviello, Francesco Zucconi, and Luca Acquarelli.
Committed intellectual, with a sincere passion for the Left (he was among the founders of Ulivo [“the olive-tree” – the former Italian PM Romano Prodi’s political coalition]), Bologna city councilor, and city councilor for cultural affairs in Siena), he collaborated with all the main Italian newspapers and with numerous scientific journals, including Alfabeta, which he co-directed, Metafore, which he founded together with Michel Butor, and Carte Semiotiche, which he established.
Among his books, translated in several languages: Semiotica della pittura [“semiotics of painting”], Il Saggiatore, Milan, 1981; Il linguaggio dell’arte [“the language of art”], Bompiani, Milan, 1984 [an English abstract is in “Semiotic Aspects of Art History: Semiotics of the Fine Arts”, in Posner, Roland, Robering, Klaus, and Sebeok, Thomas A., eds, Semiotik – A Handbook of the Sign-Theoretic Foundations of Nature and Culture, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin and New York, 2003, vol. 3, pp. 3212-3234]; La macchina della pittura [“the machine of painting”], Laterza, Bari, 1985; Piero teorico dell’arte [“Piero as Art Theoretician”], Gangemi, Rome, 1986; L’età neobarocca, Laterza, Bari, 1987 [English translation: Neo-Baroque: a Sign of the Times, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1992]; Caos e bellezza [“chaos and beauty”], Domus Academy, Milan, 1991; Mille di questi anni [“one thousand of these years”], Laterza, Bari, 1991; Breve storia della semiotica [“a short history of semiotics”], Feltrinelli, Milan, 2001; BizzarraMente [“the bizarre mind”, with Maurizio Bettini, Feltrinelli, Milan, 2002; L’Art de l’autoportrait, Citadelles&Mazenod, Paris, 2006 [English translation Artists’ Self-Portraits, Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, 2006]; Come si legge un’opera d’arte [“how to read a work of art”], Mondadori Università, Milan, 2007; L’art du trompe-l’oeil [“the art of trompe-l’oeil”], Citadelles&Mazenod, Paris, 2010 (which in the same year earned him the Bernier Prize of the French Academy for the best book of art).
In 2009, so as to celebrate his sixtieth birthday, his friends and colleagues dedicated a Festschrift to him: Testure. Scritti seriosi e schizzi scherzosi, Protagon, Siena, 2009.
More information and a press review on the website of the Italian Association for Semiotic Studies www.associazionesemiotica.it
Pictures of Omar Calabrese – www.artribune.com